Drought could lead to a surge in food price as farmers warn they are already being ‘seriously affected’
By Tamara Cohen and Mario Ledwith
PUBLISHED: 23:42, 13 March 2012 | UPDATED: 07:44, 14 March 2012
Families face soaring food prices if the drought continues to rage in the coming weeks.
Farmers in southern and eastern areas say they are already being ‘seriously affected’ by the dry conditions and fear low yields unless there are heavy downpours.
Vegetable crops such as potatoes, carrots, onions, broccoli and lettuce, which are being planted this month to be ready in late Spring, are set to be the worst affected by the low rainfall and parched soil.
The price of a loaf of bread and a pint of beer could also be hit if the dry conditions continue as wheat and barley crops are harvested in late summer.
During the last major drought of 2005-6 which affected a smaller area – only the South East – some vegetables prices spiked by as much as 40 per cent.
There are fears a dry summer could see a worse disaster than the Great Drought of 1976 when a scorching hot summer saw £500m of crops withered in fields and orchards across the country.
Soil moistures are now even lower than during that summer, as drought-hit areas have seen low rainfall for two consecutive winters rather than one – the time when reservoirs fill up as the rain is not absorbed by crops.
The Environment Agency warned yesterday that a dry summer could hit water-guzzling fruit, vegetable and salad crops with the resources to irrigate them looking ‘much less favourable than they have for several years.’
Tom Hind of the National Farmers Union said: ‘It’s clear that in some parts of the country drought could have a significant impact on production.
‘Growers in the east are understandably concerned about their ability to irrigate crops and are making changes to their cropping programme.’
Vegetable crops such as carrots, onions, broccoli and lettuce, which are being planted this month to be ready in late Spring, are set to be the worst affected
Mr Hind added that many growers had ‘smart’ irrigation systems and had planned ahead to meet customer orders.
Retailers are hoping shortages of home-grown crops will be alleviated by getting in more supplies from the wet north and west of the country which have seen normal rainfall levels.
But experts have warned there is a ‘high risk’ the drought will spread as far north as East Yorkshire and west to Hampshire and Wiltshire by the summer if the rain does not start falling soon.
Hosepipe bans were imposed on 20 million people across 14 counties yesterday after two years of chronically low rainfall which has seen rivers run dry and reservoirs at record low levels.
Farmers in the drought-hit areas have agreed to voluntary reductions in their water use of up to 20 per cent, and could see further restrictions, the Environment Agency warned.
Julius Jones, 50, who works for the farming company Greens of Soham, in Cambridgeshire which grows potatoes, onions and beetroot said: ‘There’s a real threat of things getting very difficult this year if there is no significant rainfall by May.
‘We are starting to plant now, and would normally have enough water at this stage to apply five inches to the crops, but we’ve only got three and the rivers are very low.
‘In a dry summer we would quite possibly need seven as it evaporates so quickly.
‘Groundwater is at the lowest levels since we started in early 1960s. It could start pouring by Easter but if it doesn’t rain, what we will get is smaller vegetables and that means a lower yield.’
The NFU said some farmers will plant fewer spring vegetables and could go for more crops such as cereals which require less water.
A spokesman for the British Beer and Pub Association said: ‘The drought will put pressure on beer prices, as British barley is a key natural ingredient for our beer – and we need top-quality barley for brewing.’